25-under-25: Mitchell Robinson at No. 21

25-under-25, New York Knicks

Mitchell Robinson has carved out a niche with the New York Knicks with insane highlights and absurd numbers. Now he’s ready for more.

There can be beauty in simplicity. Catch ball. Dunk ball. Stand here. Jump. Swat ball.

That’s not to call Mitchell Robinson’s basketball responsibilities simple. He is often playing as the defensive anchor for one of the most meticulous and demanding defensive coaches in the league. At both ends of the floor, he is making a thousand small reads and decisions on every possession — is this a pump fake or shot attempt, how to close space without allowing a passing angle to the pocket behind him, when to release the screen and start his roll to the basket, how to present himself for a lob without dragging his defender into a driving lane, how much space to give a shooter without setting himself up for the blow by, when to reach, when to leap.

But all that complexity often funnels down to a collection of end results that can be counted on one hand. The dunk and the block. The two true outcomes for Mitchell Robinson.

In his three NBA seasons, Robinson has made better than 70 percent of his shot attempts and has already led the league in field goal percentage once. He holds the record for highest career field-goal percentage, minimum 750 attempts. And part of the reason for all that outlier accuracy is that he dunks … a lot. Robinson has attempted a grand total of 10 jumpers and 11 hook shots in his three-year career. He’s attempted 456 dunks.

It’s the same at the other end of the floor — 325 career blocks in 3625 minutes. Of players with at least 3000 career minutes, Robinson’s 4.4 blocks per 36 minutes rank 18th all-time, just behind David Robinson and just ahead of Hakeem Olajuwon. If we defined a basketball player only with the things we could count, Mitchell Robinson would just be a block flowing seamlessly into a transition dunk at the other end:

But we all (hopefully) know at this point that a basketball player is a lot more than just the things that can be counted. And that is where the future of Mitchell Robinson becomes extremely interesting.

Mitchell Robinson is ready to be more for the New York Knicks than just a highlight reel

Defense is about a lot more than blocking shots and even the best rim protectors derive the bulk of their value from the ways in which they deter shots. Robinson’s propensity for chasing blocks was on full display over the first season and a half of his career when he was blocking jump shots at a historic rate. But that twitchy tendency to leap at everything also put him among the top of the league in shooting fouls committed and goaltends per 100 possessions.

This past season, in which Robinson started more games than in his previous two seasons combined and played a career-high 27.5 minutes per game, his blocks per minute dropped for the second consecutive year. But his fouls dropped as well and his pick-and-roll defense improved to the point that Tim Thibodeau was calling it out in his post-game comments. For the first time in his career, he was an integral part of a functioning defense that was among the league’s best.

But that’s still about things that can be measured, at least indirectly.

The run-and-jump big man is a familiar archetype and its overall value is capped well below that of the MVP tier. But for Robinson to continue improving and continuing to grow his impact, he doesn’t need to diversify or add to his game. It’s all about figuring out how to use his tools to the greatest effect, not just widening the Knicks’ average point differential but growing their confidence, smoothing their synergy and increasing their intimidation.

A forced shot-clock violation counts the same as a missed shot in the score sheet, but the psychological impact on an opponent is vastly different — being swarmed for 24 seconds to the point you can’t even find a sliver of space to launch a shot versus watching a layup roll out. It’s the same on offense. Robinson’s 397 dunks each scored the same two points as his 164 layups, but for the opposing big man jumping with him, they hit differently.

Robinson’s value to the Knicks is about the highlight swats and slams, but also their implication. The idea that they might strike at any moment and the ways in which that promotes anxiety in opponents and trust in his teammates. What he’s started growing into, and what will characterize the next step of his development, is keeping the knowledge of what he can do a part of every possession, even the ones he isn’t directly involved in.

And that’s no small thing for the Knicks. The franchise seems to be building something, with pieces like R.J. Barrett, Immanuel Quickley and Julius Randle firmly in place. But for an organization whose big man rotation has heavily featured Eddy Curry, Othella Harrington, Kyle O’Quinn and an ailing Amare Stoudemire in the two decades since Patrick Ewing left, Robinson is of special importance. Having a center that teams need to prepare for, to scheme around, to worry about, feels like part of the Knicks’ basketball id.

This season, when you think about the Knicks, Mitchell Robinson is going to make sure you’re thinking about him.

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